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MEMOIR 



OF 



BENJAMIN BANNEKER, 



READ BEFORE THB^ 



MARYLAND HISTOEIGAL SOCIETY, 



AT THE 



MONTHLY MEETING, MAY 1, 1846, 



BY 



JOHN H. B.JLATROBE, ESQ. 



PUBLISBED ITNDER DIRECTION OF THE SOCIETY. 



BALTIMORE: 
PRINTED BY JOHN D. TOY, 

Corner of Market and St. Paul street?. 



1845. 



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6> 

MEMOIR 



OF 



BENJAMIN BANNEEER, 



READ BEFORE THE 



MARYLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY, 

AT THK 

MONTHLY MEETING, MAY 1, 1845, 

JOHJT H. B. LATROBE, ESQ. 



PUBLISHED UNDER DIRECTION OF THE SOCIETY. 



o 

BALTIMORE: 
PRINTED BY JOHN D. TOY, 

Comer of Market and St Paul Street!. 

1845. 



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Rooms of the Maryland Historical Society, 1 May^ 1845. 

At the Monthly Meeting of the Society, held at its Rooms on the 1st May, Jotin H, B, 
Lairohe, Esq. read an extremely interesting Memoir of Benjamin Banneker, a coloured 
native of Maryland, who resided at Ellicotts Mills during the latter part of the last centuiy 
and heginning of the present, and was remarkable for his general intelligence and mathe- 
matical acquirements. 

Upon motion of Chas. H, Pitts, Mr. Latrobe was requested to furnish a copy of the 
Memoir for publication and preservation among the Archives of the Society. 

R. Gary Long, 

8. Teackle Wallis, 

J. McHenry Boyd, 

Committee on the Library, 



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MEMOIR 



OF 



BENJAMIN BANNEKER. 



A FEW words may be necessary to expbin why a memoir of a free man 
of colour, formerly a resident of Maryland, is deemed of sufficient interest 
to be presented to the Historical Society. 

There are no questions relating to our country of more interest than those 
connected with her coloured population ; an interest which has been in- 
creasing, year after year, until it has acquired its present absorbing charac- 
ter. Time and space prohibit an inquiry into the causes of this. It is suffi- 
cient to state the fact. The presence of this population in the States where 
slavery exists modifies their institutions in important particulars, and affects 
in a greater or less degree the character of the dominant race. For this 
reason alone, the memoir of a coloured man, who has distinguished himself 
in an abstruse science, by birth a Marylander, claims consideration from 
those who have associated to collect and preserve facts and records relating 
to the men and deeds of the past. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania 
has, no doubt, carefully gathered all that could be obtained to illustrate the 
life and scientific character of Rittenhouse. In presenting to the Historical 
Society of Maryland a memdr of Banneker, the little that is known of one 
who followed, under every disadvantage, in the footsteps of the philosopher 
of our sister State, is collected and preserved. 

There is another reason why this memoir is appropriate. Maryland is 
the only State in the Union that has clearly indicated her policy in regard 
to her coloured population. She looks to their gradual and voluntary re- 
moval as the only means of solving the difficult problem which their pre- 
sence involves. To aid in this removal, she appropriated, in 1831, the 
large sum of $200,000; not in the expectation that this sum would trans- 
port them all from this country to Africa; but that, by means of it, a com- 
munity of freemen capable of self-support and self-government might be es- 
tablished there, that would be so attractive ultimately to the coloured people 
here, as to produce an emigration, at the proper cost of the emigrants them- 



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6 

selves, based on the same motives, and as great in amount as the emigration 
from Europe to America. This polic}^ and its results must enter largely 
into the history of Maryland. Its success must mainly depend upon the 
ability and skill of the emigrants to found such a nation as will accomplish 
the end in view : and this in its turn depends on the oft mooted question as 
to the comparative intellect of the two races, the white and the coloured. 
To decide this, facts are important; and not one more conclusive exists than 
the abilities and character of Benjamin Banneker. 

Whether, therefore, as a matter of mere curiosity only, or as a fact from 
which important inferences for present action are to be drawn, a memoir of 
the individual in question should posisess interest for our association. 

Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, near the village of 
Ellicotts Mills, in the year 1732. His father was a native African, and his 
mother the child of natives of Africa ; so that to no admixture of the blood 
of the white man was he indebted for his peculiar and extraordinary abili- 
ties. His father was a slave when he married ; but his wife, who was a free 
woman and possessed of great energy and industry, very soon afterwards 
purchased his freedom. Banneker's mother was named Morton before her 
marriage, and belonged to a family remarkable for its intelligence. When 
upwards of 70, she was still very active ; and it is remembered of her, that 
at this advanced age she made nothing of catching her chickens wiien 
wanted by running them down. A nephew of her*s, Greenbury Morton, 
was a person of some note, notwithstanding his complexion. Prior to 
1809, free people of colour, possessed of a certain property qualification, 
voted in Maryland. In this year a law was passed restricting the right of 
voting to free white males. Morton was ignorant of the law till he offered to 
vote at the polls in Baltimore County ; and it is said that when his vote was 
refused, he addressed the crowd in a strain of true and passionate elo- 
quence, which kept the audience, that the election had assembled for him, 
in breathless attention while he spoke. 

The joint labour of the elder Banneker and his wife enabled them to pur- 
chase a small farm, which continued after their death in the possession of 
their son. The farm was a tract of one hundred acres, the half of a larger 
tract called "Stout," and was conveyed by Richard Gist to Robert Banna- 
ky, as the name was then spelt, and Benjamin Bannaky his son, (who was 
then but five years old) on the 10th March, 1737, for the consideration of 
7,000 lbs. of tobacco. At the date of Banneter's birth, his parents, although 
within ten miles of Baltimore, lived almost in a wilderness. In 1727, five 
years before, the site of Baltimore was the farm of John Flemming, on 
which, in that year, the legislature authorized a town to be laid out. The 
view of this town, in 1754, with which we are all familiar, does not exhibit 
more than twenty houses, straggling over the eminences on the right bank 
of Jones' Falls. In 1740, Baltimore had been surrounded with a board 
fence to protect it against the Indians. All this is proper to be remembered, 
in order that the difficulties against which Banneker had to struggle may be 
fairly understood. In 1732, Elkridge landing was of more consequence 
than Baltimore. 

When Benjamin was old enough he was employed to assist his parents 



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{n their labour. This was at an early age, when his destiny seemed no- 
thing better than that of a child of poor and ignorant free negroes, occupy- 
ing a few acres of land in a remote and thinly peopled neighbourhood, — a 
destiny which certainly, at this day, is not of very brilliant promise, and 
which, at the time in question, must have been gloomy enough. In the 
intervals of toil, and when he was approaching, or had attained, manhood, 
he was sent to an obscure and distant country school, which he attended 
until he had acquired a knowledge of reading and writing, and had advanced 
in arithmetic as far as ** Double Position." In ail matters beyond these 
rudiments of learning he was his own instructor. On leaving school he 
was obliged to labour for years, almost uninterruptedly, for his support. But 
his memory being retentive, he lost nothing of the little education he had 
acquired. On the contrary, although utterly destitute of books, he ampli- 
fied and improved his stock of arithmetical knowledge by the operation of 
his mind alone. He was an acute observer of every thing that he saw, or 
which took place around him in the natural world, and he sought with avidity 
information from all sources of what was going forward in society ; so that 
he became gradually possessed of a fund of general knowledge, which it 
was difficult to find among those even who were far more favoured by op- 
portunity and circumstances than he was. At first his information was a 
subject of remark and wonder among his illiterate neighbours only; but by 
degrees the reputation of it spread through a wider circle; and Benjamin 
Banneker, still a young man, came to be thought of as one, who could not 
only perform all the operations of mental arithmetic with extraordinary facil- 
ity, but exercise a sound and discriminating judgment upon men and things. 
It was at this time, when he was about thirty years of age, that he contrived 
and made a clock, which proved an ejccellent time-piece. He had seen a 
watch, but not a clock, such an article not yet having found its way into the 
quiet and secluded valley in which he lived. The watch was therefore his 
model. It took him a good while to accomplish this feat; his great difficul- 
ty, as he often used to say, being to make the hour, minute and second 
hands correspond in their motions. But the clock was finished at last, and 
raised still higher the credit of Banneker in his neighbourhood as an inge- 
nious man, as well as a good arithmetician. 

The making of the clock was an important matter, for it was probably 
owing to the fame of it, that the EUicott family, who had just commenced 
a settlement where Ellicotts Mills now stands, were induced to seek him 
out. Well educated, and having great aptness for the useful mechanics, 
they were the men of all others, able to understand and appreciate the 
character and abilities of Banneker, and they continued during his life his 
firm and zealous friends. 

As already stated, the basis of Banneker's arithmetical knowledge was 
obtained from the school book into which he had advanced as far as Double 
Position : but in 1787, Mr. George EUicott lent him Mayer's Tables, Fer- 
gusson's Astronomy and Leadbeater's Lunar Tables. Along with these 
books were some astronomical instruments. Mr. Ellicott was accidentally 
prevented from giving Banneker any information as to the use of either 
books or instruments at the time he lent them: but before he again met 



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him, and the interval was a brief one, Banneker was independent of any 
instruction, and was already absorbed in the contemplation of the new world 
which was thus opened to his view. From this time, the study of astrono« 
my became the great object of his life, and for a season he almost dis« 
appeared from the sight of his neighbours. He was unmarried, and was 
the sole occupant of a cabin on the lot of ground already mentioned. 
His parents had died at a date which is not remembered ; before the period, 
however, to which we now particularly refer. He was still obliged to labor 
for his bread; but by contracting his wants he made little serve him, and he 
thus obtained leisure to devote to his books. His favourite time for study 
was night, when he could look out upon the planets whose story he was 
reading, and whose laws he was gradually but surely mastering. During 
the hours of darkness Banneker was at his labours, and shutting himself up 
in his house, when not obliged to toil out of doors with his hands, he slept 
during the day. In this way he lost the reputation for industry which he 
bad acquired in early life ; and those who saw but little of him in his field, 
and who found him sleeping when they visited his house, set him down as 
a lazy fellow, who would come to no good, and whose old age would disap- 
point the promise of his youth. There was a season, when this estimate of 
him by the ignorant among his neighbours, led to attempts to impose on 
him, and at times gave him serious inconvenience. But as people came to 
understand him, his character was restored most honourably. A memo* 

randum in his hand-writing, dated December 18th, 1790, states " 

informed me that stole my horse and great coat, and that the said 

intended to murder me when opportunity presented. gave me a 

caution to let no one come into my house after dark." The names of the 
parties were originally written in full; but they were afterwards carefully 
cancelled, as though Banneker had reflected, that it was wrong to leave an 
unauthenticated assertion on record against an individual, which might 
prejudice him, if incorrect, by the mere fact that it had been made. 

Very soon after the possession of the books already mentioned had drawn 
Banneker' s attention to astronomy, he determined to compile an almanac, 
that being the most familiar use that occurred to him of the information 
he had acquired. Of the labour of the work, few of those can form an 
estimate who would at this day commence such a task, with all the assist- 
ance afforded by accurate tables and well digested rules. Banneker had 
no such aid : and it is narrated as a well known fact, that he commenced 
' and had advanced far in the preparation of the logarithms necessary for his 
purpose, when he was furnished with a set of tables by Mr. George Ellicott. 
About this time he began the record of his calculations, which is still in 
existence, and is leA with the Society for examination. A memorandum 
contained in it thus corrects an error in Fergusson's Astronomy. '' It ap- 
pears to me that the wisest of men may at times be in error : for instance, 
Dr. Fergusson informs us that when the sun is within 12^ of either node at 
the time of full, that the moon will be ecHpsed : but I find, according to his 
method of projecting a lunar eclipse, there will be none by the above ele- 
ments, and yet the sun is within 11^ A& 11" of the moon's ascending node. 
But the moon being in her apogee prevents the appearance of this eclipse.'' 



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Another memorandum makes the following corrections. " Errors that ought 
to be corrected in my Astronomical Tables are these ; ^ vol. Leadbeater, 
p. 204, when b anomaly is 4* 30°, the equation 3"" 38' 41" ought to have 
been 3° 28^ 41". In % equation, page 155, the logarithm of his distance 
from O ought to have been 6 in the second place from the index, instead of 
7, that is from the time that his anomaly is 3« 24"" until it is 4« O''." Both 
Fergusson and Leadbeater would probably have looked incredulous, had 
they been informed, that their laboured works had been reviewed and 
corrected by a free negro in the then almost unheard of valley of the Pa- 
tapsco. The first Almanac which Banneker prepared, fit for publication^ 
was for the year 1792. By this time his acquirements had become gene- 
rally known, and among others who took an interest in him was James 
McHenry, Esq. Mr. McHenry wrote a letter to Goddard and Angell, then 
the Almanac publishers in Baltimore, which was probably the means of^^ 
procuring the publication of the first Almanac. It contains a short account 
of Banneker, and is inserted as the most appropriate preface that could have 
been furnished for the work. Mr. McHenry's letter does equal honour to 
bis heart and understanding. A copy of the Almanac is presented here- 
with to the Society, in the name of Mrs. EUicott, the widow of George 
EUieott, Banneker's steadfast friend. 

In their editorial notice, Messrs. Goddard and Angell say, "they feel 
gratified in the opportunity of presenting to the public, through their press, 
what must be considered as an extraordinary efibrt of genius — a complete 
and accurate Ephemeris for the year 1792, calculated by a sable descendant 
of Africa/' &c. And they further say, that '* they flatter themselves that a 
philanthropic public, in this enlightened era, will be induced to give their 
patronage and support to this work, not only on account of its intrinsic 
merits, (it having met the approbation of several of the most distinguished 
astronomers of America, particularly the celebrated Mr. Rittenhouse,) but 
from similar motives to those which induced the editors to give this calcu- 
lation the preference, the ardent desire of drawing modest merit from ob- 
scurity and controverting the long established illiberal prejudice against the 
blacks." 

The motive alluded to by Goddard and Angell in the extract just quoted, 
of doing justice to the intellect of the coloured race, was a prominent object 
with Banneker himself; and the only occasions when he overstepped a 
modesty which was his peculiar characteristic, were when he could, by 
so doing, ''controvert the long established illiberal prejudice against the 
blacks." We find him, therefore, sending a copy of his first Almanac to 
Mr. Jefferson, then Secretary of State under General Washington, saying 
in the letter that accompanied it, ** although you may have the opportunity 
of perusing it after its publication, yet I chose to send it to you in manu- 
script previous thereto, that you might not only have an earlier inspection, 
but that you might also view it in my own hand-writing." 

To the letter from which the above is an extract, and which will be found 
at length, appended to this memoir, Mr. Jefferson made the following reply: 



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10 

Philadelphia, Jug. 30» 1791. 
Sir, — I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th instant, and for 
the Almanac it contained. Nobody "wishes more than I do to see such 
proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents 
equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a 
want of them is owing only to the degraded condition of their existence 
both in Africa and America. I can add with truth that no one wishes more 
ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of 
their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their 
present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will 
admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de 
Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and member of 
the Philanthropic Society; because I considered it a document to which 
your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which 
have been entertained of them. 

I am, with great esteem, sir, your most obedient servant, 

Tho. Jefferson. 
Mr. Benjamin Banneker, near EllicoUs' lower Milh, Baltimore County. 

When he published his first Almanac, Banneker was fifty -nine years old, 
and bad high respect paid to him by all the scientific men of the country, 
as one whose colour did not prevent his belonging to the same class, so far 
as intellect went, with themselves. After the adoption of the constitution ia 
1769, commissioners were appointed to run the lines of the District of Co- 
lumbia, the ten miles square now occupied by the seat of government, and 
then called the " Federal territory." The commissioners invited Banneker 
to be present at the runnings, and treated him with much consideration. On 
bis return, he used to say of them, that " they were a very civil set of gen- 
tlemen, who had overlooked his complexion on account of his attainments, 
and had so far honoured him as to invite him to be seated at their table; an 
honour,'' he added, '* which he had thought fit to decline, and requested 
that a side table might be provided for him.'' 

Banneker continued to calculate and publish his Almanacs until 1802, 
and the folio already referred to and now before the Society, contains the 
calculations clearly copied, and the figures used by him in his work. The 
hand-writing, it will be seen, is very good and remarkably distinct, having 
a practised look, although evidently that of an old man, who makes his let- 
ters and figures slowly and carefully. His letter to Mr. Jefferson, in the 
Appendix, gives a very good idea of his style of composition and his ability 
as a writer. The title of the Almanac is here transcribed at length, as a 
matter of curious interest at this later day. If it claims little of the art and 
elegance and wit of the Almanacs of Punch or of Hood, it is nevertheless, 
considering its history, a far more surprising production. 

'' Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland 
Almanac and Ephemeris for the year of our Lord 1792, being Bissextile or 
leap year, and the sixteenth year of American Independence, which com- 
menced July 4, 1776. Containing the motions of the sun and moon, the 
true places and aspects of the planets, the rising and setting of the sun, and 



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tbe rising, setting and southing, place and age, of the moon, &c. The Lu- 
ai,(j:. nations, Conjunctions, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and 
e j; remarkable days." Thus much is Banneker's : then follow Goddard and 
tair Angell; "also several useful tables and valuable receipts — various selec- 
e i tions from the common place-book of the Kentucky Philosopher, an Ameri- 
can sage ; with interesting and entertaining essays in prose and verse — the 
whole comprising a greater, more pleasing and useful variety than any book 



stei 



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3(1; of the kind and price in North America." 

Besides his aptitude for mechanics, and his ability as a mathematician, 
Banneker Was an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiv- 
ing impulses from what was taking place around him. Many instances of 
this are to be found in the record of his calculations, which he seems to 
l,j. have used occasionally as a common-place book. For instance, under date 
i[j- of the 27th August, 1797, he writes: "Standing at my door I heard the 
discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, 
the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the 
^ house ; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater 
than that of a cannon bullet." It must have been a philosophic mind, 
which observing the fact as here stated, drew from it the correct conclusion, 
)ii and then recorded it in appropriate terms as a simple and beautiful illustra- 
n lion of the law of nature, with which, in all probability, he first became 
faff acquainted through its means. 

k Again on the 23d December, 1790, he writes: "About 3 o'clock, a. m. I 

0-1 heard the sound and felt the shock like unto heavy thunder. I went out 
1^ but could not observe any cloud above the horizon. I therefore conclude 
II it must be a great earthquake in some part of the globe." A similar con- 
Q elusion from the same facts was drawn by a greater man than Banneker 
near eighteen hundred years before,* and recorded to be commented on in 
after ages. 

Nor was Banneker's observation confined to matters of a philosophical 
character. There is evidence in the memoranda of his record book that 
natural history was equally interesting to him. The following, independent 
of its connection with the subject of our memoir, possesses general interest 
as an authentic statement by an eye-witness of a curious fact in entomolo- 
gy. In April, 1800, he writes: "The first great locust year that T can re- 
member was 1749. I was then about seventeen years of age, when thou- 
sands of them came and were creeping up the trees and bushes. I then 
imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would 
occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, 
but soon saw that my labour was in vain, and therefore gave over my pre- 
tension. Again in the year 1766, which is seventeen years after their first 
appearance, they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous 
as the first. I then, being about thirty-four years of age, had more sense 
than to endeavour to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to 
the fruit of the earth as I imagined they would be. Again in the year 
1783, which was seventeen years since their second appearance to me, 
they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800, 

•Pliny. 

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12 

which 18 seventeen years since their third appearance to roe. So that if I 
may venture to express it, their periodical return is seventeen years : but 
they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a 
sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the 
branches of the trees, and in the holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies 
and falls. Then the egg^ by some occult cause immerges a great depth 
into the earth, and there continues for the space of seventeen years as 
aforesaid." 

**I like to forgot to inform, that if their lives are short they are merry. 
They begin to sing or make a noise from first they come out of the earth 
till they die. The hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any 
pain to them, for they still continue on singing till they die." 

Again, there is the following record of a fact in natural history : ''In the 
month of January, 1797, on a pleasant day for the season, I observed my 
honey bees to be out of their hives, and they seemed very busy, all but 
one hive. Upon examination I found all the bees had evacuated this hive, 
and \et\ not a drop of honey behind them. On the 9th February ensuing, 
I killed the neighbouring hives of bees, on a special occasion, and found a 
great quantity of honey, considering the season — which I imagine the 
stronger had violently taken from the weaker, and the weaker had pursued 
them to their home, resolved to be benefitted by their labour or die in the 
contest." 

The last extract we shall make from the record book is one which indi- 
cates a relish for the beautiful in nature, as well by his undertaking to re- 
cord a description of what he saw, as by the language which he uses. The 
extract is from the last pages of the book, when he was in his seventy-first 
year. His writing is still distinct, but the letters have lost their firmness, 
and shew that his hand trembled as it held the pen. 

" 1803, Feb. 2d. In the morning part of the day, there arose a very 
dark cloud, followed by snoW and hail, a flash of lightning and loud thun- 
der crack ; and then the storm abated until afternoon, when another cloud 
arose at the same point, viz : the north-west, with a beautiful shower of 
snow. But what beautified the snow was the brightness of the sun, which 
was near setting at the time. I looked for the rainbow, or rather snowt>ow, 
but I think the snow was of too dense a nature to exhibit the representa- 
tion of the bow in the cloud." 

**N. B. The above was followed by very cold weather for a few days." 

Soon after he obtained the books already mentioned as having been lent 
him by Mr. George Ellicott, and became engrossed in his new studies, he 
found that it was necessary to have more time at his disposal than he had 
previously enjoyed, and also to be released from some cares that had occa- 
sionally annoyed him. The land on which he lived was divided into se- 
veral small tenements, the rent of which contributed to Banneker's sup- 
port. The collection of this rent was a source of constant trouble and vex- 
ation. His tenants quarrelled with him'; they refused to pay him : if he 
insisted on payment, they annoyed him in a dozen different ways, until at 
last, saying that *'it was better to die of hunger than of anger," he determined 
to sell his land for an annuity. He therefore made a careful calculation of 



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the chances of his life upon such data as he could obtain, and the Ellicott 
family bought the land upon the terms proposed by him. In the same 
volume that contains his Almanacs in manuscript is an account current, by 
which it would seem that the annuity was iSl'2, Maryland currency. This 
arrangement gave him the time he wanted, and the annuity, with the pro- 
ceeds of his Almanac, mainly supported him until he died. It is stated, 
that the only imperfect calculation which Banneker ever made, was the 
calculation for this annuity. He lived eight years longer than the time pre- 
scribed. Other persons in later days have done the same, where the insu- 
rance office has undertaken the calculation, so that Banneker' s case is not a 
remarkable one in this respect. ^Notwithstanding the sale of the land he 
still resided on it and, as it would seem from a memorandum in his record 
book, he continued to labour on it a portion of his time. On the 24th 
April, 1802, he speaks of being in the field, holing for corn — and among 
the last entries made by him are charges for pasturage. 

In 1804, Banneker died, in the 72d year of his age, and his remains are 
deposited, without a stone to mark the spot, near the dwelling which he 
occupied during his life-time. His land, of course, went at once into the 
possession of the Messrs. Ellicotts, and his personal property was disposed 
of by him to his friends before he died. There is no evidence that he 
made a will, or that there was administration on his estate, to be found 
in the records of the Orphan's Court, which have been examined with a 
view of adding to the few materials still existing for his biography. There 
are several persons now living who recollect Banneker well, and from these 
Mr. Benjamin H. Ellicott, of Baltimore, has collected the memoranda from 
which, with the materials furnished by his record book, this sketch has 
been prepared. The following is an extract from Mr. EUicott's letter in 
regard to Banneker. 

" During the whole of his long life he lived respectably and much es- 
teemed by all who became acquainted with him, but more especially by 
those who could fully appreciate his genius and the extent of his acquire- 
ments. Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, liv- 
ing alone, having never married, — cooking his own victuals and washing 
his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was 
nothing misanthropic in his character, for a gentleman who knew him, thus 
speaks of him. 'I recollect him well. He was a brave looking pleasant 
man, with something very noble in his appearance. His mind was evidently 
much engrossed in his calculations ; but he was glad always to receive the 
visits which we often paid to him.' Another of Mr. EUicott's corres- 
pondents writes as follows : * When I was a boy, I became very much inter- 

* The deed from Banneker to the Ellicotts, Jonathan, Ellas, George and John, is dated 
on the 10th March, 1799, and purports to convey 72 acres of a tract of land called "Stout" 
for the sum of JC180 Maryland currency— which seems inconsistent with the idea of the 
annuity mentioned in the text. But the positive information of living witnesses, and the 
entries in the record book, kept by Banneker, seem to establish the fact that the annuity 
was psdd, prior to the date of the deed, the execution of which was perhaps postponed or 
neglected for many years after the agreement was made. A deed for 28 acres of the tract, 
the balance of the 100 acres, had been previously executed to Greenbury Morton, a cousin 
of Banneker'8 on the mother's side. 



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ested in him, (Banneker) as his manners were those of a perfect gentleman; 
kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasing, abounding 
in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day ; very 
modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own house. I 
have seen him frequently. His head was covered with a thick suit of 
white hair, which gave him a very venerable and dignified appearance. 
His dress was uniformly of superfine drab broad cloth, made in the old 
style of a plain coat, with straight collar and long waistcoat, and a broad 
brimmed hat. His colour was not jet black, but decidedly negro. In size 
and personal appearance, the statue of Franklin at the Library in Philadel- 
phia, as seen from the street, is a perfect likeness of him. Whenever I 
have seen it, it has always reminded me of Banneker. Go to his house 
when you would, either by day or night, there was constantly standing in 
the middle of the floor a large table covered with books and papers. As 
he was an eminent mathematician, he was constantly in correspondence 
with other mathematicians in this country, with whom there was an inter- 
change of questions of difficult solution.* " 

In the foregoing brief notice all is collected that can now be obtained in 
regard to Benjamin Banneker. 

The extent of his knowledge is not so remarkable, as that he acquired 
what he did under the circumstances we have described. It might be said 
by those disposed to sneer at his simple history, if there be any such, that 
after all he was but an almanac-maker, a very humble personage in the 
ranks of astronomical science. But that the almanac-maker of Pennsylva- 
nia, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, from 1791 to 1802, should have been 
a free black man, is, to use the language of Mr. Jefferson, a fact to which 
his whole colour h^s a right for their justification against the doubts that 
have been entertained of them. 



LETTER REFERRED TO IN THE FOREGOING MEMOIR. 

Maryland, Baltimore County, > 
Near EUicotts' Lower WUs, Jvgmt 19tft, 1791. J 

Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. 

Sir : — I am fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom, which I take 
with you on the present occasion, a liberty which seemed to me scarcely 
allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in 
which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossession which 
is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion. 

I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you^ to need a proof here, that 
we are a race of beings who have long laboured under the abuse and 
censure of the world, that we have long been considered rather as brutish 
than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments. 

Sir, I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of that report which hath 
reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this 
nature than many others, that you are measureably friendly and well disposed 
towards us, and that you are ready and willing to lend your aid and assist- 
ance to our relief, from those many distressed and numerous calamities, to 
which we are reduced. 

Now, sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will readily embrace 
every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and 



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15 

opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us, and that your 
sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that one universal father 
hath given being to us all., and that he hath not only made us all of one 
flesh, but that he hath also without partiality afforded us all the same sensa- 
tions, and endued us all with the same faculties, and that however variable 
we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or colour, 
we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him. 

Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you 
cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable duty of those who 
maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who profess the 
obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief 
of every part of the human race, from whatever burthen or oppression they 
may unjustly labour under, and this I apprehend a full conviction of the 
truth and obligation of these principles should lead all to. 

Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for 
those inestimable laws, which preserve to you the rights of human nature, 
was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every indi- 
vidual of whatever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the 
blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied, short of the most active 
difiusion of your exertions, in order, to their promotion from any state of 
degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may 
have reduced them. 

Sir, I freely and cheerfijly acknowledge that I am of the African race, 
and in that colour which is natural to them of the deepest dye, and it is 
under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the 
Universe, that 1 now confess to you, that I am not under that state of tyran- 
nical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren 
are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those bless- 
ings, which prbceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you 
are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received 
from the immediate hand of that being, from whom proceedeth every good 
and perfect gift. 

Sir, suffer me to recall to your mind that time in which the arms and 
tyranny of the British crown were exerted with every powerful effort in 
order to reduce you to a state of servitude ; look back, I entreat you, on the 
variety of dangers to which you were exposed; reflect on that time in which 
every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and forti- 
tude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led 
to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preserva- 
tion ; you cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility 
which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar 
blessing of heaven. 

This, sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a state 
of slavery, and in which you had just apprehension of the horrors pf its con- 
dition, it was now, sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you 
publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be 
recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages. " We hold these truths 
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed 
by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, 
liberty and the pursuit of happiness." 

Here, sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for yourselves had 
engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of 
the great valuation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to 
which you were entitled by nature ; but, sir, how pitiable is it to reflect that 
although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of 



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16 

mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and 
privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the same 
time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous 
a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that 
you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which 
you professedly detested in others with respect to yourselves. 

Sir, I suppose that your knowledge of the situation of my brethren, is 
too extensive to need a recital here ; neither shall I presume to prescribe 
methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise than by recommending 
to you and all others, to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which 
you have imbibed with respect to them, and as Job proposed to his friends, 
''put your souls in their souls stead,'' thus shall your hearts be enlarged 
with kindness and benevolence towards them, and thus shall you need 
neither the direction of myself nor others, in what manner to proceed herein. 

And now, sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath 
caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope that your candour and 
generosity, will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, 
that it was not originally my design ; but that having taken up my pen, in 
order to direct to you as a present, a copy of an almanac, which I have cal- 
culated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led 
thereto. 

This calculation, sir, is the production of my arduous study in this my 
advanced stage of life ; for having long had un|)ounded desires to become 
acquainted with the secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity 
herein through my own assiduous application to astronomical study, in 
which I need not to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages 
which I have had to encounter. 

And although I had almost declined to make my calculation for the en- 
suing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor, 
being taken up at the Federal Territory, by the request of Mr. Andrew 
Ellicott, yet finding myself under several engagements to printers of this 
State, to whom I had communicated my design, on my return to my place 
of residence, I industriously applied myself thereto, which I hope I have 
accomplished with correctness and accuracy, a copy of which I have taken 
the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favorably 
receive, and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its 
publication, yet I chose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, 
that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you 
might also view it in my own hand-writing. 

And now, sir, I shall conclude and subscribe myself, with the most pro- 
found respect, your most obedient humble servant, fi. Bai^neker. 

Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. Philadelphia. 

N. B. Any communication to me, may be had by a direction to Mr. 
Elias Ellicott, merchant, in Baltimore Town. 

B. B. 



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